A while back, Traci Gardner at the NCTE Inbox blog wrote about "abbreviations and shortcuts" used in IM and elsewhere as not being incorrect grammar. She stated:

The systems that I see Internet writers use don’t indicate laziness or a lack of education. Far from it. They require complex understandings of how language works. When students use Internet language in the wrong place, we shouldn’t mark their work incorrect any more than we would mark students’ use of dialect and home language wrong. What we should do is talk about code-switching and how the uses of Internet language and Standard English contrast.

I responded in two comments over there, but I thought I'd expand a little more on it here. I agree with much of what Gardner wrote. In this particular paragraph, although I agree with the first and last sentences, the middle two sentences, I can't.

Although it might seem that internet language requires a complex understanding of language, most people don't understand the language they use in every day conversation. Linguists do, and people who study a foreign language get some inkling of the mechanics of their native language. But most people don't understand how language works any more than the non-biologist understands how mitochondria synthesize ATP. I remembered taking an English syntax class in my thirties, learning for the first time that the difference between blue bird (a type of bird) and blue bird (a bird that is blue in color) is understood through stress. The former has equal stress on blue and bird, while the latter has stress only on bird. Until that class I didn't even know that I was making that distinction. It was all unconscious (which is how we acquire our languages). So, no, although language itself is complex, most people do not have "complex understandings of how language works," at least consciously.

Yes, dialects and home languages are not wrong. They just are. However, any dialect can be "wrong" in a particular context. Imagine using text-messaging abbreviations in a resume or on a company's business report to shareholders. Imagine pontificating with academic verbiage to your parents. Or using "ain't" and southern double modals in an academic article.

In some ways, it's a natural progression to go from saying that something is not wrong to not evaluating it as wrong. But, again, what is not "wrong" per se can be wrong in a particular context. Most people applying for a construction job are not going to wear a tuxedo or evening gown. There's nothing wrong with tuxedos and evening gowns in and of themselves. At a construction site, however, an employer might question your ability to do the job and might interpret your choice of apparel as indicating a lack of common sense and consequently perhaps a lack of trustworthiness. If your purpose were to obtain a job, then you would have failed an important test.

Similarly, dialect use depends upon audience, purpose, and context. We are not helping our students if the resumes they send out do not have a formal dialect, if the company's reports they write do not have a business dialect, and so on. So, although we need to explain and help our students learn contextual uses of language, we also have to evaluate and give feedback on how well they use a dialect for the audience and purpose for which their text is intended. Generally speaking, internet abbreviations don't cut it in school and business writing.

Another reason that Gardner gives for not correcting dialects is,

The problem is that marking language “wrong” doesn’t work.

Yes, there's research that shows that traditional grammar instruction and correction doesn't work. And there's research that shows certain types of error feedback do work. (For more on error feedback, see my series of posts on error feedback, beginning with Error Feedback in L2 Writing.)

Of course, simply marking something as wrong may not work. Even in sports, if a coach simply says, "Wrong, do it again!" it's unlikely that a player will improve much. But coaches give feedback on what to do, and the players practice hours on end for months to incorporate that feedback. In addition, coaches don't tell players everything that is wrong, only a few crucial points at a time. The problem with most grammar correction is that, although explanation often accompanies the correction, often the amount of correction may be too much to attend to and also students generally do not practice hours on end to change their grammar. So, it's to be expected that much research will show error correction doesn't work. Not because it doesn't work but because it's implemented in ways that will not work. However, many extrapolate from this finding and jump to the conclusion that all types of error correction will not work. That's an unjustified jump.

Having said all of that, it really makes no sense to apply research findings of grammar correction to Internet-speak correction. Teachers may be marking Internet-speak "wrong," but this is not the same "wrong" as in correcting grammar. As Gardner notes,

Wheeler and Swords point to the research of applied linguistics and the work of educators such as past CCCC president Keith Gilyard that indicates the correction of vernacular language, the languages used with family and friends in the home community, just doesn’t work (4).

However, Internet-speak is not a native vernacular language that people grow up with. I'm not sure it should be considered a language as distinct from English. At best, it might be considered some sort of pidgin, as Anil Dash (whom Gardner cites) says, learned around or past the prime time for acquiring a native language. In fact, although we might mark it "wrong," we are not correcting it in the way that we expect students to modify their native language. Instead, we are saying, "Don't use Internet-speak. Use your vernacular language."

Again, the issue is not whether a dialect or abbreviations are "wrong." They're not. The issue is, How can we help our students use the language expected by their audience in a particular context? Of course, as Gardner states, we must orient our students to noticing contrasts between Internet-speak and academic language. Their ability to do so, however, should be evaluated just as we assess other aspects of their writing.

If you're interested in reading how others are handling Internet dialect differences in email from students, read the following:
Bullshit Meters are Blowing Up
An Academic Outsider Gets Real About Email Communication
Email headaches: small bother? good lesson?
Write a perfect email
How to send Krause email
How to email a professor

The latest issue of TESL-EJ is out and available from either Japan or the USA. As you can see from the Table of Contents, it's chock full of articles and book reviews concerning grammar.

Vol. 11. No. 2, September 2007

Feature Articles
Special Issue Editor: Maggie Sokolik

  • Grammar-Based Teaching: A Practitioner's Perspective, by Betty Azar
  • Concept-Based Grammar Teaching: An Academic Responds to Azar, by Kent Hill
  • Towards More Context and Discourse in Grammar Instruction, by Marianne Celce-Murcia
  • Grammar, Meaning and Pragmatics: Sorting Out the Muddle, by Michael Swan
  • The Effects of Implicit and Explicit Instruction on Simple and Complex Grammatical Structures for Adult English Language Learners, by Karen L. Ziemer Andrews
  • Grammar Texts and Consumerist Subtexts, by M E Sokolik

On the Internet
Editor: Vance Stevens

  • Text-to-Speech Applications Used in EFL Contexts to Enhance Pronunciation, by Dafne González

Media Reviews
Editor: Thomas Delaney & Maja Grgurovic

  • Introductory English Grammar and Vocabulary with Color Key, reviewed by Dessie Bekrieva-Grannis
  • Fundamentals of English Grammar: Interactive, reviewed by Josh Overcast
  • Game Show Presenter 4.3d, reviewed by Ferit Kılıçkaya & Ebru Çerezcioğlu
  • Motivating Language Learners with Flickr, reviewed by Aaron Campbell

Editor: Will Seng

Grammar & Register

  • A. Robert Young & Ann O. Strauch (2006), Nitty Gritty Grammar: Sentence Essentials for Writers, 2nd ed., reviewed by Pat Moore
  • Scott Thornbury (2006), Resource Books for Teachers: Grammar, reviewed by Joseph J. Lee
  • John McH. Sinclair & Anna Mauranen (2006), Linear Unit Grammar: Integrating Speech and Writing, reviewed by Oliver Mason
  • Mike Scott & Christopher Tribble (2006), Textual Patterns: Key Words and Corpus Analysis In Language Education, reviewed by Kornwipa Poonpon - Douglas Biber (2006), University Language: A Corpus-based Study of Spoken and Written Registers, reviewed by Ruth Breeze


  • Keith S. Folse, Elena Vestri Solomon & David Clabeaux (2007), From Great Paragraphs to Great Essays, reviewed by Panagiota Dimakis
  • Ken Hyland & Fiona Hyland, Eds. (2006), Feedback in Second Language Writing: Contexts and Issues, reviewed by Abdelmajid Bouziane

Teacher Resources

  • Robert M. DeKeyser, Ed. (2007), Practice in a Second Language: Perspectives from Applied Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology, reviewed by Andrea B. Hellman
  • Mike Levy & Glenn Stockwell (2006), CALL Dimensions: Options and Issues in Computer-Assisted Language Learning, reviewed by Anne O'Bryan

Recently, I came across "Error Correction Seminar", a blog for a graduate level class taught by Lourdes Ortega at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. To date, they've reviewed more than 20 research articles on error feedback in second language learning, highlighting strengths and weaknesses of the articles and making pertinent comments, such as this one by David:

The organization of the article was clear and the statistics and charts all very comprehendable. What raises my hackles, though, is the central question this article is asking. While there is value in showing that students prefer or attend to one type of feedback over another (and only three types of feedback were studied here), in the end I wind up asking myself, "So what?" — especially when the definition of "uptake" means merely attempting to correct a mistake when the computer is telling you, 'Hey, you made mistake.'

Of course, I need to read the article myself, but still, "So what?" is one of the best questions to ask when trying to determine the usefulness of any academic research for application to the classroom.

I like these reviews, too, because they show the human side of the reviewers, as seen with David. And consider this excerpt from Ping:

This article is quite easy to read. I was able to read it without constantly thinking of getting more coffee, so that's good.

I can personally attest to the sleep-inducing effect of many academic articles.

For those interested in error correction but with insufficient time to review the literature, this site is a good opportunity to get a brief overview of error correction articles.

More than a few people confuse "it's" (for "it is") with "its" (the possessive pronoun) in their writing. What I didn't know was the history of "it's". Daily Writing Tips provides this interesting tidbit:

when the third person neuter possessive adjective came into the language in the 16th century, it was spelled it’s for the very reason that the new form was modeled on the ’s of the possessive noun. The spelling it’s for the possessive adjective was acceptable “down to about 1800 (A.C. Baugh, A History of the English Language, p. 295).

Although we generally have to teach standard forms, it's good to keep in mind that what is "incorrect" today may have been "correct" yesterday.

The Alliance for Excellent Education has issued a 77-page meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental research, the Writing Next Report (via Anne Davis), and have come up with the following recommendations for writing instruction:

Eleven Elements of Effective Adolescent Writing Instruction
  1. Writing Strategies, which involves teaching students strategies for planning, revising, and editing their compositions
  2. Summarization, which involves explicitly and systematically teaching students how to summarize texts
  3. Collaborative Writing, which uses instructional arrangements in which adolescents work together to plan, draft, revise, and edit their compositions
  4. Specific Product Goals, which assigns students specific, reachable goals for the writing they are to complete
  5. Word Processing, which uses computers and word processors as instructional supports for writing assignments
  6. Sentence Combining, which involves teaching students to construct more complex, sophisticated sentences
  7. Prewriting, which engages students in activities designed to help them generate or organize ideas for their composition
  8. Inquiry Activities, which engages students in analyzing immediate, concrete data to help them develop ideas and content for a particular writing task
  9. Process Writing Approach, which interweaves a number of writing instructional activities in a workshop environment that stresses extended writing opportunities, writing for authentic audiences, personalized instruction, and cycles of writing
  10. Study of Models, which provides students with opportunities to read, analyze, and emulate models of good writing
  11. Writing for Content Learning, which uses writing as a tool for learning content material

The report notes that these 11 elements are,

effective for helping adolescent students learn to write well and to use writing as a tool for learning. [However] ... even when used together, they do not constitute a full writing curriculum.

The report adds this qualifer because, as they note, there may be effective strategies that have not yet been studied.

Grammar Instruction
The controversial topic of grammar instruction is also touched upon:

Grammar instruction in the studies reviewed involved the explicit and systematic teaching of the parts of speech and structure of sentences.The meta-analysis found an effect for this type of instruction for students across the full range of ability, but surprisingly, this effect was negative.This negative effect was small, but it was statistically significant, indicating that traditional grammar instruction is unlikely to help improve the quality of students’ writing. Studies specifically examining the impact of grammar instruction with low-achieving writers also yielded negative results ... However, other instructional methods, such as sentence combining, provide an effective alternative to traditional grammar instruction, as this approach improves students’ writing quality while at the same time enhancing syntactic skills. In addition, a recent study (Fearn & Farnan, 2005) found that teaching students to focus on the function and practical application of grammar within the context of writing (versus teaching grammar as an independent activity) produced strong and positive effects on students’ writing. Overall, the findings on grammar instruction suggest that, although teaching grammar is important, alternative procedures, such as sentence combining, are more effective than traditional approaches for improving the quality of students’ writing.

Most of the studies analyzed in this report looked at L1 students. However, decontextualized grammar instruction without frequent feedback is also unlikely to have a positive effect for L2 students. A while back, I noted that on the related topic of error feedback (see links below) to acquire competence in any field, extensive practice accompanied by appropriate feedback was necessary. It seems unlikely that grammar should be the lone exception.

Alternative Methods of Grammar Instruction
Perhaps grammar instruction/practice/feedback could become more effective if we were to design it along the lines of those 11 elements. For a beginning point, suppose we reorient some of those 11 elements toward grammar:

  1. Writing Strategies that teach students strategies for editing their grammar
  2. Summarization, which involves explicitly and systematically teaching students how to explain and summarize grammar's rhetorical effects
  3. Collaborative Writing, which uses instructional arrangements in which adolescents work together to plan grammatical choices and edit their compositions
  4. Specific Product Goals, which assigns students specific, reachable goals for the grammar they need to acquire
  5. Word Processing, which uses computers and word processors as instructional supports for checking spelling and grammar
  6. Study of Models, which provides students with opportunities to read, analyze, and emulate models of good grammar

One implementation of these elements can be found in the grammar logs recommended in Error Feedback: Practice. Grammar logs have specific grammar goals and models of the grammar points to be learned.

Theoretical Understanding of Grammar Instruction
Simply using these 11 elements, as even the report stated, is insufficient to design a "full writing curriculum." LIkewise, it's not enough to use them innovatively for grammar instruction without a theoretical understanding of why and how these 11 elements work. Along the lines of ACT-R Theory (see also Error Feedback: Theory), key elements of learning include:

  1. time on task
  2. the use of examples accompanied by explanation and understanding,
  3. accurate diagnosis of the learning task and performance, and
  4. feedback

It's easy to see from these elements why traditional grammar instruction doesn't work. Although it may use examples and explanations, students are not spending time on tasks integrating grammar into their writing (outside of fill-in-the-blank sentences) nor necessarily receiving appropriate feedback. In contrast, Writing Strategies, Summarization, Inquiry Activities, and Models of Study easily fit into these key elements of learning. Collaborative writing, however, is not always effective for learning. To be done appropriately, it needs to integrate accurate diagnosis and understanding of the task, along with feedback. Otherwise, collaborators can just as easily reinforce misunderstandings of grammar and writing. Word processing, because it can underline grammar and spelling questions, focuses students' attention on recurring errors, thus allowing for more diagnosis of the problem and encouraging more time on task.

The Writing Next Report is worth reading, and having a theoretical understanding of learning elements is important for integrating its recommendations effectively, whether for grammar instruction or other writing goals.

Error feedback posts

What do you think? Does one "learn" a language much like any other cognitive endeavor? Or is it "acquired" due to some innate language-specific biological mechanism?

There's quite a bit of controversy on this issue, on whether some universal grammar (UG) is responsible for language acquisition, deriving from an innate process specific for language. For those taking the UG approach, acquisition results from the UG module while "learning" is due to normal learning processes. Not all agree. For example, consider Christiansen and Chater's working paper, "Language as Shaped by the Brain". Here's the abstract:

It is widely assumed that human learning and the structure of human languages are intimately related. This relationship is frequently suggested to be rooted in a language-specific biological endowment, which encodes universal, but arbitrary, principles of language structure (a universal grammar or UG). How might such a UG have evolved? We argue that UG could not have arisen either by biological adaptation or non-adaptationist genetic processes. The resulting puzzle concerning the origin of UG we call the logical problem of language evolution. Because the processes of language change are much more rapid than processes of genetic change, language constitutes a “moving target” both over time and across different human populations, and hence cannot provide a stable environment to which UG genes could have adapted. We conclude that a biologically determined UG is not evolutionarily viable. Instead, the original motivation for UG--the mesh between learners and languages--arises because language has been shaped to fit the human brain, rather than vice versa. Following Darwin, we view language itself as a complex and interdependent “organism,” which evolves under selectional pressures from human learning and processing mechanisms. That is, languages are themselves undergoing severe selectional pressure from each generation of language users and learners. This suggests that apparently arbitrary aspects of linguistic structure may result from general learning and processing biases, independent of language. We illustrate how this framework can integrate evidence from different literatures and methodologies to explain core linguistic phenomena, including binding constraints, word order universals, and diachronic language change.

In brief, learning a language is like learning any other skill.

More recently, the National Institutes of Health released news on a six-year study on brain development in healthy children. The study followed the brain development of about 500 children, ages 6-18, each child being tracked over a four-year period. One finding (accompanied by caveats) undermines the notion of language being innate:

Children appear to approach adult levels of performance on many basic cognitive and motor skills by age 11 or 12, according to a new study coordinated by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). ...

Regardless of income or sex, children appeared to improve rapidly on many tasks between ages 6 and 10, with much less dramatic cognitive growth in adolescence. This result fits with previous research suggesting that in adolescence, there is a shift toward integrating what one knows rather than learning new basic skills.

In other words, there is a "critical period" for learning general cognitive tasks that corresponds to the critical period for "acquiring" a language, usually considered to be up until the age of 12, after which individuals will not develop a complete command of a language. In Error Feedback: Theory, I mentioned the 10-year rule, which states that becoming an expert requires at least 10 years of intense practice, a period of time similar to achieving nativelike fluency in a second langauge.

If language learning has a similar critical period time frame as other endeavors and takes similar amounts of time to become an "expert," then it would seem to be governed by general cognitive learning processes rather than by a language-specific learning process.

These findings do not contradict Krashen's assertion of the need for massive comprehensible input for learning a language. After all, the crucial element for achieving mastery of any activity is, as Anderson and Schunn (pdf) state,

For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor.

As teachers, then, one of our primary tasks is to motivate students to spend the necessary time in learning a language (see Error Feedback: Motivation, The Inverse Power of Praise, and Engagement and Flow).

For the convenience of one location, here are my posts on error feedback, along with my sources and links if available.

My posts:


Anderson, J. R., Fincham, J. M., & Douglass, S. (1997). The role of examples and rules in the acquisition of a cognitive skill (pdf). Journal of Experimental Psychology, 23, 932-945.

Anderson, J. R., & Schunn, C. D. (2000). Implications of the ACT-R learning theory: No magic bullets (pdf). In R. Glaser (ed.), Advances in instructional psychology: Educational design and cognitive science (pp. 1-33). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum (LE).

Bitchener, J., Young, S., & Cameron, D. (2005). The effect of different types of feedback on student ESL writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 14, 191-205.

Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78, 246-263. (See here, here, and here for synopses of this work and others by Dweck.)

Chandler, J. (2003). The effects of various kinds of error feedback for improvement in the accuracy and fluency of L2 student writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 267-296.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The "what" and "why" of goal pursuits: human needs and the self-determination of behavior (pdf). Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268. (See homepage for more on self-determination theory.)

DeKeyser, R. (2007). Skill acquisition theory. In B. VanPatten & J. Wiliams (eds.), Theories in Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: LE.

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Teaching and research motivation. Harlow, England: Pearson Education.

Ericsson, K.A., & Charness, N. (1994). Expert Performance: Its structure and acquisition. American Psychologist, 49, 725-747.

Ferris, D. (2004). The "grammar correction" debate in L2 writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here? (and what do we do in the meantime...?) (pdf). Journal of Second Language Writing, 13, 49-62.

---- (2003). Response to student writing: Implications for second language students. Mahwah, NJ: LE.

---- (2002). Treatment of error in second language student writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

---- (1999). The case for grammar correction in L2 writing classes: A response to Truscott (1996). Journal of Second Language Writing, 8, 1-11.

Ferris, D., & Hedgcock, J. (2005). Teaching ESL composition: Purpose, process, and practice (2nd ed.). Mahway, NJ: LE.

Hinkel, E. (2004). Teaching academic ESL writing: Practical techniques in vocabulary and grammar. Mahwah, NJ: LE.

Hinkel, E., & Fotos, S. (eds.) (2002). New perspectives on grammar teaching in second language classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: LE.

MIles, J. (2002). Second language writing and research: The writing process and error analysis in student texts. TESL-EJ 6.

Ross, P. (2006). The expert mind. Scientific American, 295(2), 64-71.

Truscott, J. (2004). Evidence and conjective on the effects of correction: A response to Chandler (pdf). Journal of Second Language Writing, 13, 337-343.

---- (1999). The case for "The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. A response to Ferris (pdf). JJournal of Second Language Writing, 8, 111-122.

---- (1996). The case against error correction in L2 writing courses (pdf). Language Learning 46, 327-369.

Yates, R., & Kenkel, J. (2002). Responding to sentence-level errors in student writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 11, 29-47.

Below are bibliography pages with downloadable articles related to the above sources (and some repetition, of course):

ACT-R Theory
Self-determination theory

If all I had to go on was the research on Error Correction in L2 Writing, I wouldn't do it. There's simply insufficient evidence to justify such an investment of time and effort.

However, research on learning, expertise, and motivation has garnered an impressive amount of empirical evidence for the positive effects of feedback that meets certain criteria. Before making suggestions on how to structure grammar feedback, let me summarize criteria on learning and motivation for guiding that feedback.


  1. Learning occurs sequentially through three stages of declarative, procedural, and automatic knowledge.
  2. Acquiring expertise in any field, including a second language, requires extensive practice.
  3. Practice is made effective through
    • accurate diagnosis of the task/rules,
    • examples and understandable explanations for the task/rules, and
    • feedback based on the examples and explanations.
  4. Effective time on task is the most important factor in learning.
  5. Learning occurs best when re-iterated at intervals.


  1. Motivation is important because it encourages persistance on task.
  2. Motivation is promoted by
    • clear goals,
    • autonomy,
    • tasks that challenge one's competence without unduly frustrating, and
    • feedback that is immediate and informational.

Grammar Feedback Guidelines

Correctable Grammar

Grammar feedback in L2 writing should target only those items that are rule-governed and for which examples and clear explanations can be found. Subject-verb agreement is one such rule. Style is not.

Structure of Feedback

Dana Ferris (2003) breaks feedback into direct (the teacher giving the answer) and indirect (which ranges from merely noting the location of an error to using editing symbols to more explicit directions, such as use “future tense here.”). She says that direct feedback is preferred for beginning students, while indirect feedback seems to have better effects for intermediate and advanced students, likely because students must think about the errors and engage in self-editing (Ferris, 2003).

To some degree, if students think about an error, they're constructing declarative knowledge. But are they diagnosing the rule accurately and time-effectively? It would be better to first have the rules accompanied by examples and explanations that they continue to refer to. No doubt, Ferris and most instructors refer students to their grammar textbooks, but I'm thinking that students should construct their own textbooks to use grammar feedback more effectively.

Grammar notebooks: Students should maintain grammar notebooks with these examples and explanations, adding to the notebooks as new rules, examples, and explanations are covered. Extra space or pages should be available for students for revision. For instance, if an error was a case of misunderstanding, perhaps the explanation for the rule in their notebook should be revised. Or, if a rule doesn't seem to fit neatly into rules, examples, or understandings previously given, then students can revise the rule, create a new rule, make new examples, or write new understandings. In this way, students can acquire the requisite declarative knowledge, and the notebook becomes a textbook emerging out of, contributing to, and individualized to their own learning.

Goal logs: Students can keep a goal log, in which they set grammar goals and track their improvement over time. Seeing improvement is motivation, and seeing the same error repeatedly can help students target that error, review and revise their grammar notebooks accordingly, and determine strategies for reducing its occurrence.

Program-embedded feedback: Notebooks and goal logs should be used across courses in a program to provide the continuity and repetition needed of reading, writing, and revising understanding across different contexts to proceduralize grammar.

Frequency of Feedback

One problem with learning to write is that unlike sports, chess, and video games, feedback does not occur immediately or even often. Up until now, in my own classes, I generally only give grammar feedback on their major paper assignments, which means they get grammar feedback at the most every 2-3 weeks, and even that occurs several days after the paper is turned in.

If time allows, consider having students write for 5-10 minutes every class and then checking their work or perhaps checking their classmates' work. But instead of having them check for all errors, have them check for one specific error according to class needs. On days with less time, consider using a student example, perhaps from another class. Re-iteration of rules, or anything else, at spaced intervals is crucial for learning. This sort of task would work well for homework, too.

Note that while I grade the grammar component on a major paper assignment, I do not grade it on other assignments. Although the reality check of a grade is a given in most educational institutions, most feedback should be informational rather than evaluative. Otherwise, intrinsic motivation can be dampened.

Grammar Instruction

General lessons on grammar do not fit the criteria above. However, Ferris (2003; cf. Hinkel, 2004) suggests that mini-lessons may be useful if they have the following characteristics:

  1. Mini-lessons should be brief and narrowly focused …
  2. Instruction should focus on major areas of student need, rather than minor fine-tuning.
  3. Lessons should include (minimally) text-analysis activities so that students can examine the target constructions in authentic contexts and application activities so that they can apply newly covered concepts to their own writing.
  4. Instruction should also include strategy training to help students learn to avoid errors and to self-edit their work. (p. 157)

An example of a single task incorporating these guidelines and the criteria above would be one centering on the reporting of an interview (adapted from Hinkel, 2002). A mini-lesson could look at grammatical structures in interviews, such as tenses and reporting verbs. Examples would be given along with understanble explanations. Students would then analyze interviews in newspapers or magazines, focusing on tenses and reporting verbs and comparing to their examples. Next, they would interview someone and write a report of the interview. Finally, students would compare how they used tenses and reporting verbs to the grammatical findings of their earlier analyses and examples in their grammar notebooks.

The key diffferences in the original task and this one is (1) establishing declarative knowledge appropriately and (2) integrating feedback into the task via students' grammar notebooks. Many tasks in textbooks and elsewhere can be reframed to incorporate the learning and motivation criteria above.


Feedback is crucial for learning any activity, including languages. There are “no magic bullets” to accelerate learning. Rather, appropriate feedback helps students spend “effective time on task,” thus eliminating wasted time and effort.

Disclaimer: Because these suggestions are the recent result of my reviewing these theories and considering their application to error feedback, I haven't implemented them yet. This summer I intend to work on reframing the way I provide feedback and implement my new understanding in the fall semester. After doing so, I hope to provide some feedback here on how it went.

Call for feedback: If you have tried any of these approaches or others based on these theories, email me and let me know how it went, both successfully and unsuccessfully, and I'll post your experiences here.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

As noted in the previous post on theory in error feedback, the research on expertise and ACT-R Theory suggest that learning a language is similar to learning other activities like chess, music, and math. In this post, we'll look at Skill Acquisition Theory (SAT), which is based upon the work in ACT-R.

Robert DeKeyser (2007) has a good overview of Skill Acquisition Theory. (See Theories in Second Language Acquistion.) As he notes, development has three stages: declarative, procedural, and automatic (from ACT-R Theory). Declarative knowledge refers to explicit knowledge about a topic, as in "knowing" and talking about grammar rules. Procedural knowledge is implicit knowledge that refers to behavior, such as speaking or writing a language. Of course, there are different levels of proficiency in using a language, and thus automaticity is not an "all-or-nothing affair". Automaticity occurs toward the endpoint of extensive practice, toward the point at which one has become completely fluent in a language. From the perspective of SAT, the sequence of these stages is crucial, as is the appropriate "combination of abstract rules and concrete examples" at the declarative stage.

According to DeKeyser, Skill Acquisition Theory does not explain all of language learning and apparently is most effective at beginner levels. He states that SAT works best with

  1. high-aptitutde adult learners engaged in
  2. the learning of simple structures at
  3. fairly early stages of learning
  4. in instructional contexts

It seems obvious that young children will not respond as well as adults to the use of declarative knowledge as their ability to understand rules and explanations is more limited. Conversely, as rules become more complex, they may become too difficult to understand in the form of declarative knowledge. Thus, it's possible that learning (or acquiriing) complex rules may rely more upon implicit processes. Anderson and Schunn (pdf) say something similar:

As knowledge domains become more advanced, their underlying cognitive structure tends to become more obscure. Thus, while it may remain easy to provide feedback on what the final answer is, it becomes difficult to provide feedback on the individual mental steps that lead to the final answer. Teachers often are unaware, at an explicit level, of what this knowledge is and do not know how to teach it to children.

Anderson and Schunn are pointing to the need to diagnose a task and break it down into its components in order to provide effective feedback. When we can't componentialize a task, then feedback becomes considerably less effective. Basically, we can only say then, "No, that's not right" or "Yes, that's it."

Thus, with respect to error correction, we need

  • rules that are not obscure,
  • examples of the rules, and
  • understandable explanations of those rules.

The ability to use declarative knowledge in the learning process does not accelerate acquisition. Rather, it eliminates wasted time and effort.

Before turning to practical suggestions for error correction, I'll look at motivation in my next post.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

When the evidence for error feedback is "scant", mostly what we have to go on is theory. Those who oppose error correction would likely assume a nativist framework that includes:

  1. Language acquisition (whether first or second language) differs from general learning processes.
  2. Language acquisition and general learning processes do not interact.
  3. The process of language acquisition cannot be accelerated.

Without reviewing the research, let me say that there are those, even in L1 studies, that assert that language acquistion results from general learning processes (e.g., Christiansen and Chater's working paper, "Language as Shaped by the Brain"). And alternative theories also exist in second language acqusition, such as Skill Acquistion Theory and Associate-Cognitive CREED (Construction-based, Rational, Exemplar-driven, Emergent, and Dialectic). (See Theories in Second Language Acquistion.) So, why would anyone want to take a nativist position? There are more than a few reasons. The main one seems to be the poverty of the stimulus, but in part, one reason seems to be that language acquisition is seen as inexplicably complex while other learning endeavors seem simple in comparison. I would like to suggest that the comparisons being made are simple, but not the objects, or processes, being compared.

I've mentioned Philip Ross's article "The Expert Mind" (in Scientific American, see also my post) on more than one occasion, but it's worthwhile to return to it often. It states,

The preponderance of evidence is that experts are made, not born.

Although not innate, expertise takes time to develop. In general, it takes "takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field." Thus, although it doesn't take much to learn how to move the pieces in chess, becoming a grandmaster of strategy, however, takes at least a decade of intense practice. Similarly, although it doesn't take much to learn a few basic grammar rules and a small vocabulary, becoming fluent in another language--that is, acquiring the "grandmaster status" of a native speaker--takes at least 10 years of intense practice, too.

If the amount of time to acquire expertise is similar between chess, music, art, math, and language, that suggests for learning a language,

  1. the crucial element is practice rather than some language module
  2. the process cannot be accelerated.

Because the process cannot be accelerated, it may matter little whether one takes an nativist or general learning process approach to language acquistion. Note, however, that all practice is not equal. From the article,

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player's progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study.

The case of enthusiasts practicing without advancing is reminiscent of fossilization, and the "effortful study" reminds me of Krashen's i+1 principle for input. One difference is "point[ing] up weakenesses for future study," a "monitor" approach that Krashen would say does not contribute to language acquisition.

Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets" (pdf) make similar assertions:

For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor.

However, they qualify that to mean "effective time on task." Once again, not all practice is equal. In the case of ACT-R Theory, "effective time on task" is promoted through

  • the use of examples accompanied by explanation and understanding,
  • accurate diagnosis of the learning task and performance, and
  • feedback

It seems that research on expertise and ACT-R Theory would support some form of error correction. Because Skill Acquistion Theory, which draws upon ACT-R and similar theories, focuses on SLA, in my next post, I'll look at it in a little more detail.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

My earlier post Error Feedback in L2 Writing looked at Truscott's position (pdf) not to correct grammar at all.

Is Truscott right? Should we abandon grammar correction in our writing classes? One reason he gives is that the research does not support correcting grammar. Even Dana Ferris (1999), responding to Truscott, admitted that the evidence supporting error response was "scant." But she added that that was not the same as saying that it doesn't help students. She mentioned a few studies not mentioned by Truscott that do support error correction, stating,

This rush, or stampede, to judgment is especially egregious in Truscott’s review essay. Based on limited, dated, incomplete, and inconclusive evidence, he argues for eliminating a pedagogical practice that is not only highly valued by students, but on which many thoughtful teachers spend a great deal of time and mental energy because they feel that helping students to improve the accuracy of their writing is vitally important. Had Truscott used his review to ask some pointed questions about error correction and to identify some of the problems raised by the available research, he would have done teachers and scholars a valuable service. But because he went further and offered sweeping conclusions, he has potentially put students at risk--that their teachers, teacher educators, or researchers will accept his claims uncritically and adjust their practices accordingly, to the possible detriment of students’ development as writers.

I find this position less than satisfactory. If the evidence is "scant," according to someone who supports error correction, then which way to turn is little more than a coin toss. If it has little or no effect, why would anyone want to do, as Ferris puts it, "time-consuming and mostly tedious" work? Ferris adds,

I also find that the time and energy I spend sometimes does not pay off in long-term student improvement.

Although Ferris qualifies that statement with "sometimes," such a statement coming from her, a major proponent of error feedback, is discouraging. Even so, I figured if there were any research supporting error correction it would be found in Ferris's (2003) Response to student writing, which contains an excellent review of the literature on error feedback. However, either my library has misplaced it or someone decided the library didn't need it as much as they did. So, I looked at Laurel Reinking's (Linguist List 16.111) friendly review of the book. But even she had to conclude,

Although Ferris provides an insightful analysis of each study presented, because, as she complains, "the results of the ... studies ... have been conflicting and not always well designed or clearly described ..." (p. 67), her conclusion does not support the efficacy of error correction.

Not much support here. So, I turned to one of Ferris's more recent articles "The 'grammar correction' debate in L2 writing." In this article, she summarized her position:

  1. the research base on the ‘‘big question’’—does error feedback help L2 student writers?—is inadequate;
  2. the previous studies on error correction are fundamentally incomparable because of inconsistencies in design; and
  3. existing research predicts (but certainly does not conclusively prove) positive effects for written error correction.

In other words, the best we can say is that some research hints that error feedback may be helpful. Ferris concludes that what she has done is to

critique most or all of the previous research and essentially argue that we need to start from scratch. Obviously, it could be years, even decades, before we have trustworthy empirical answers to some of the questions we need to consider—so what do we (teachers and teacher educators) do in the meantime?

As Ferris herself notes, we teachers don't have "decades" to wait. We have to teach now. One possibility is to consider other theories outside of the SLA and SLW boxes in order to re-frame the error correction issue. So, more on theory in the next post.


Ferris, D. (1999). The case for grammar correction in L2 writing classes: A response to Truscott (1996). Journal of Second Language Writing 8, 1-11.

Ferris, D. (2003). Response to student writing: Implications for second language students. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Ferris, D. (2004). The "grammar correction" debate in L2 writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here? (and what do we do in the meantime...?) Journal of Second Language Writing 13, 49-62.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

Do you ever wonder how your English language learners (ELLs) to improve their grammar? For myself, when I look at their papers in first-year composition, I'm struck by the number of errors in grammar, not simply problems of prepositions and the articles a and the, but problems of subject-verb agreement, incorrect use of verb tenses, run-on sentences, sentence fragments, and many more.

Language learning is a long, arduous process, and it's not realistic to expect that ELLs will become nativelike in less than 10 years, much less the one semester I have them in my course. Just consider that Ulla Connor, a leading scholar in contrastive rhetoric and professor of English at Indiana University, stated in her book Contrastive Rhetoric (1996) that she still “tends to use [articles and prepositions] inappropriately” 20 years after receiving her doctorate and teaching in the U.S. (p. 4).

So, how can we help our students improve their grammar? Or can we? Some believe that we can't. Innatists, such as Krashen, hold that language acquisition differs from language learning, that the two have no interface, and so grammar instruction does not aid language "acquisition," only "learning." Still, even Krashen (2004) admits that some grammar knowledge can be useful for advanced learners in editing. This makes sense as writing, unlike speaking, allows time for monitoring. How to help advanced learners acquire this knowledge remains problematic, however.

Another anti-grammar-correction proponent is John Truscott. His (in)famous article "The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes" (pdf) reviewed the literature on error feedback and asserted:

Do not correct grammar.

Truscott's main reasons for abandoning grammar correction included:

  1. Research has not shown grammar correction to be effective.
  2. Language acquisition is a gradual process that cannot be accelerated through the "transfer" of grammar knowledge.
  3. The time students spend on understanding grammar correction and applying it could be spent more productively on other activities, such as improving organization and logic.
  4. Teachers may do a poor job of recognizing and correcting errors.

Truscott's position is controversial, of course. So, we'll look at the reasons and positions on error correction in more detail over a series of posts, with the next post on the paucity of evidence.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

On Tuesday at the NJTESOL-NJBE Spring Conference, I presented on different pedagogical strategies for helping English language learners improve the grammar in their writing.

After I brought up the importance of hedging in academic writing, one participant stated that in high school, they taught students to take a position and argue for it strongly rather than allow for any uncertainty or for the possibility of other positions having some validity. I imagine that state testing requirements lead naturally to this style of writing. However, it creates problems for students when they enter the university. Although I'm not against testing or accountability, such a situation shows that standardized testing has a strong influence on pedagogy and also that influence is not always a desirable one. As I mentioned in another post, "Let us make education in our image, says business",

present methods to measure accountability end up in dumbing down instruction and damaging student learning, as shown clearly in George Hillocks' The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning, and that disturbs me.